The Magic Mountain

The saga of Tuberculosis Andy — the guy who flew to Europe to get married but carried along with him a case of untreatable TB then snuck back into the country in a rent-a-car and disclosed that his dad works at the Center for Disease Control (where he works with TB, imagine that) — makes me hark to that unreadable doorstep of an existential novel, The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann, where the hero/protagonist, Hans Castorp, wastes away in a Swiss sanitarium from ennui and consumption, going nowhere fast.
Hans was nowhere nearly as mobile, and indeed, was happy to sit around with a thermometer in his mouth. This flurry of news has the makings of a great thriller: border crossings, virulent untreatable diseases, government agencies. Mann wouldn’t know what to do with the plot.

Switzerland bans some GPS devices for speed camera warnings – Engadget

Switzerland bans some GPS devices for speed camera warnings – Engadget

Loyal reader Brian M. sends along this Engadget tidbit for the “Weird” “Swiss” tag. Nothing that happens in that bizarre country will ever surprise me. Still, I miss the place.

“On January 10th a law went into effect banning the use of a navigation device to warn of speed surveillance locations, and police now have the authority to stop drivers using their GPS units for such a purpose, confiscate and destroy the device and fine the driver — we hate to see what they do to people who read books and feel emotion. As far as we can tell, it’s not actually illegal to own such a device, just illegal to use it for such a nefarious purpose, but at the same time Swiss government has issued a list of “illegal” navigation systems for retailers to remove from their shelves, including devices from TomTom, Garmin, Mio, Navman, Medion, Route66, Packard Bell, Sony and ViaMichelin.”

The tyranny of testing

No one appreciates being typecast, but it’s part of the program to get tested, ranked, and labeled with some convenient label. The one that has irritated me for the past ten years — ever since the new HR lady at Forbes thought it would be a good idea — was the Myers-Briggs type indicator test. This was a topic of some casual conversations at McKinsey, where everyone is an utter over-achiever and accustomed to accumulating the kind of labels mere mortals gasp at: Rhodes Scholar, Baker Scholar, Phi Beta Kappa, even a Nobel prize winner or two.

The idea of identifying myself in a conversation as a ENTP is depressing and reduces me to a four-letter acronym, which, to some, is as revealing as saying I’m a Taurus and about as relevant.

Anyway, I digress. What got me on this screed was a recent radio show on Open Source, Christopher Lydon’s sometimes awesome evening NPR show, on the last art of cursive handwriting. My cursive simple sucks, wasted in the third grade at Perley Elementary School in Georgetown, Massachusetts when I completely failed the Palmer Method, was diagnosed as being a “false left-handed person” and then told to write with my right.

That didn’t work and hence I embarked on a lifetime as a writer thanks to my father giving me a typewriter at the age of nine so people could understand my written utterances.

Lydon’s guests included some calligraphy freaks, one of whom mentioned the European practice of using a handwriting analyst to examine a job candidate’s writing sample and deliver a report on that candidate’s applicability for the job. I ran into this practice when I worked in Zurich and got to know a fairly prominent head hunter for the banking industry. He thought it was second nature to request a writing sample and send it off for analysis — it made as much sense to me as asking an astrologer to cook up a horoscope and about as accurate. Granted, I can see a handwriting expert taking the stand to identify if a signature was genuine, but to predict behavior? If I had passed the Palmer Method, and wrote a perfect, controlled cursive script, then in theory I would be about as transparent as a human version of Courier 12.
The Wikipedia confirms my suspicion that handwriting analysis — aka Graphology — is about as relevant to predicting an individiual’s performance as the Myers-Briggs, only creepier.

My wife, who is expert in forging my signature, says she only has to rapidly write the words “Del Chunk” to achieve a reasonable facsimile.

Lunch over IP: The natural history of the @ sign

Lunch over IP: The natural history of the @ sign

Reading Bruno Giussani is a delight. This history of the “@” or “at” sign is a keeper. Bruno is my favorite Swiss blogger and info theory blogger out there.

“The precise birth date of e-mail is unknown, but technology historians set it somewhere in late 1971, when a then 30-year old American computer engineer, Ray Tomlinson, did what he unassuming calls “a quick hack”. He successfully sent the first electronic message from a computer to an account (his own account, in fact) on another computer.”

Lunch over IP: On the relative length of languages

Lunch over IP: On the relative length of languages

Bruno Giussani on the relative length of languages when translated. He points to an online translation forum that carried this nugget:

  • Spanish document: 25%-30% longer than the English source.
  • Finnish document: about 30% shorter than the English source.
  • Russian document: about 30% shorter than the English source (same for Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian)
  • From German into Finnish the character count decreases by 10% and the word count by 40%.
  • From German into Russian: about one-third more.
  • From German into English: about one-third shorter.
  • From Georgian into English: about 45-50% more.
  • From English into Estonian: about 30% fewer words.
  • French is 15-25% longer than English.

Embarassing Days on the Job

In 2002 I worked for an entrepreneur from Liechtenstein who was the chairman of an international charity devoted to preventing drug abuse by children. He hosted the annual trustees meeting at his Italian villa on Lake Lugano — right on the border between Italy and Switzerland — and invited me to attend so I could present the organization’s annual report.
The trustees were a pretty powerful group of people — the President of Colombia, an ex-Formula One race car driver, a McKinsey director, Nino Cerutti (the men’s fashion designer), and assorted European royals, including the head of the charity, the Queen of Sweden. Having never actually met royalty, I fretted beforehand about the proper form of address one used when greeting a queen. Your Majesty? Your Royal Highness? Your Serene Highness? Anyway, the meeting was held, a nice lunch was enjoyed, and by-and-by the Queen had to leave and take a limo to Milan for the flight back to Stockholm. Everyone lined up in the hallway of the villa to say good-bye — a reverse receiving line I suppose — and I took my place next to Nino Cerutti, who had correctly identified my gabardine suit as being one of his designs, pointing out archly to me that it was obviously off-the-rack (I didn’t have the heart to tell him I stole it for $200 from Filene’s Basement) but I’m very much a slob when it comes to clothes, yet I liked that suit a lot.

The Queen’s bodyguards went ahead of her Highness to check out the security situation while she made her way down the line of guests and said her goodbyes, one-by-one. As the security team passed in front of me I had to take a step backwards to get out of the way. The Queen was three people away, then two people away, surrounded by my hovering, obsequious boss. Then she was right there, saying goodbye to Nino and air-kissing him on the cheeks three times. (I never got that air kiss thing down. Left-right-left? Right-left-right? Make contact? I always end up smashing heads or doing something inappropriate like actually making kissy sound effects.)

Sensing I might lick her cheek,  the Queen took my hand in both of her’s, looked me in the eyes, spared me the air-kiss and told me what a pleasure it had been to meet me. I’m sure it was, as I had been kept far away from her during the meeting and lunch, but she was very nice and a very attractive woman so I was charmed and got ready to say, “Thank you, your Highness” but I noticed something was very wrong with my back. Right below my right shoulder blade. Wrong and getting wronger. Like, holy shit, I’m on fire kind of wrong.

The security team had backed me into a big candle on an iron sconce and I was now ablaze.

I let go of the Queen’s hand and disrobed. I grabbed the collar of the suit coat and pulled it over my head right in front of her. She backed away in terror.

“Are you alright?” she shouted most un-serenely as I threw my coat on the floor and stomped out the flames. Nino Cerutti slapped out the flames on my smoldering shirt with his bare hands. The smell of burning wool filled the hallway. I am grateful the Swedish Secret Service didn’t gun me down on the spot.

“Quite alright,” I managed to say with perfect aplomb. The woman to my right, the teenaged daughter of the President of Colombia, was horrified and out of sympathy for my plight (or distraught to miss her big moment), she started weeping. The Queen consoled her and I took the opportunity to put the suit coat back on before my boss could see my thermonuclear lapse in etiquette. Too late. He wound up having his lackey fire me over the phone a few months later. I was forever in the penalty box after desecrating his royal moment.

“I think you need a new suit,” Mr. Cerutti said after the Queen was hustled to her car.

“Hook me up, Nino,” I said. He never did, even though it was a Nino Cerutti suit.
I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to keep my back to the wall, smelling like burnt hair.  I still have pieces of the coat in the garage, serving as a bike chain degreaser as a reminder of my brush with royalty.

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